What explains the rise of Donald Trump?
There are many potential answers, but over the course of the campaign two competing theories have emerged. The first holds that Trump’s message appeals to working-class white voters who’ve seen their incomes stagnate, manufacturing jobs vanish, and inequality skyrocket in recent decades. The root cause of Trumpism, in this view, is economic insecurity. The other, blunter theory is that Trump’s fans flock to him for the same reason elites view him as an existential threat to American democracy: His open appeals to racist, white nationalist sentiment.
Both of these theories have some truth to them. But polling data suggests that racial resentment is the more important factor.
The American National Election Studies 2016 Pilot Study, a presidential primary extension of a long-running election survey, asked 1,200 eligible voters about the election, and their views on race, from Jan. 22 – 28, 2016. The poll had a number of questions designed to measure racial animus.
First, it asked respondents how important their race is to their identity. Second, it asked respondents whether they think the words “lazy” and “violent” describe black people, Muslims and Hispanics, “extremely well,” “very well,” “moderately well,” “slightly well” and “not well at all.” Finally, it included several questions meant to measure what scholars refer to as “racial resentment.” Developed by Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders in 1996, the concept of racial resentment is designed to capture less overt, but still real, forms of racism. The concept is particularly useful for measuring racism these days, when most racism tends to be “colorblind” or “dog-whistle” racism — that is, racist attitudes that are expressed in a way that is seemingly neutral, but still animates racial anger.
The survey then showed four prompts on racial resentment (which we then combined to a single metric), which each respondent was asked to rate on a 5-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”:
Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Black people should do the same without any special favors.
It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if black people would only try harder they could be just as well-off as whites.
Over the past few years, black people have gotten less than they deserve.
Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for black people to work their way out of the lower class.